By Genevieve Pollock
LONDON, JULY 21, 2010 (Zenit.org).- As the United Kingdom prepares the highest level of welcome for Benedict XVI, the anticipation is growing, and Catholics are becoming increasingly aware of the Church's place in society.
ZENIT interviewed Monsignor Andrew Summersgill, coordinator for the Sept. 16-19 Papal visit to the United Kingdom, about the preparations and the climate in that region.
In this interview, Monsignor Summersgill explained the significance of the invitation to the Pope by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, and he described some of the ways in which Catholics are being prepared for the visit of the Holy Father.
ZENIT: What is the latest news in the preparations as you continue concretizing the details for Benedict XVI's visit?
Monsignor Summersgill: Well, I am sure that you will have seen that on July 2, the Holy See, the British government and the bishops' conferences of England and Wales and Scotland confirmed the main elements of the Holy Father's visit here in September. The detailed program will be published about a month before Pope Benedict arrives.
At the moment we are engaged in sending allocations of places to dioceses for attendance at the larger gatherings with the Holy Father: the Mass in Glasgow, the Mass of beatification [of Cardinal John Henry Newman] in Birmingham and the vigil of prayer in London.
We have also in the past weeks had a series of planning meetings and visits with officials from the Holy See.
We are engaged now in detailed preparation with the U.K. government, local authorities, the Anglican Communion, the police and security services.
It's quite exciting going around to the different venues seeing all the work being done in preparation. I'm finding it difficult to remember being somewhere that was not being redecorated!
ZENIT: Some media sources have been primarily highlighting the negative attitudes of atheists and secularists with regards to Benedict XVI's visit. What would you say about the climate in the parishes and among the public with regard to the upcoming Papal visit?
Monsignor Summersgill: Yes, there are some people who are questioning the fact of the visit by the Holy Father, and there are those who object quite specifically that his visit is to be a State visit -- the highest level of welcome the United Kingdom can give to a visitor.
There are also those who have fundamental objections to elements of the teaching of the Catholic Church and are taking this opportunity to voice those.
Also, this is a difficult time in the United Kingdom as we face cuts in government spending, and so some of the questions about Pope Benedict's visit are focused on questions about the costs being met from public finance.
I have to say, though, that this contrasts with the sense of welcome and anticipation that there is across a broad spectrum of society, and certainly within the Catholic Church and other Christian communities.
This weekend, in the parish I assist in, people were signing up to be part of the groups travelling to the Mass of beatification and the vigil of prayer.
I was also speaking with a teacher who is engaged in bringing schoolchildren to the celebration of Catholic education that will take place on the second day of the visit, as well as with some of the young people who will be representing their parish during the visits.
Recently the bishops' conferences published a booklet "Heart Speaks Unto Heart," which seeks to give answers to some of the basic questions about the visit. The Papal visit Web site is also very popular.
ZENIT: The Pope has made it clear that he wants to dialogue even with atheists, and all people in the United Kingdom. What do you think will be the particular significance of his upcoming trip for the general public?
Monsignor Summersgill: One of the ways in which the public as a whole will engage with Pope Benedict will be through the media.
How the visit is reported and of course how it is broadcast is therefore essential.
The Holy Father will be seen and will speak in some settings that will be instantly recognizable across the country and throughout the world.
I would hope that this will encourage people to listen to the words of Pope Benedict and to read what he is saying to society as a whole.
Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Westminster characterizes an overall hope for the visit: that our society will be able to appreciate from Pope Benedict's visit the fact that we can come to understand that faith is a gift to be rediscovered rather than a problem to be solved.
ZENIT: How is this visit expected to be different from John Paul II's 1982 visit?
Monsignor Summersgill: The visit of Pope John Paul II was a pastoral visit to the Catholics of England, Scotland and Wales.
The Holy Father's whole itinerary in 1982 was constructed around the celebration of the sacraments. Also at the time there was the Falklands War and there had been doubt about whether or not the visit would be going ahead.
This time Pope Benedict comes to visit the whole of British society as well, of course, as celebrating the Eucharist and especially the beatification of Cardinal John Henry Newman.
Pope John Paul II spent almost nine days in Britain and visited far more places than Pope Benedict will during what is a much shorter visit. In 1982, other than a courtesy visit to the queen, there were not any of the more formal aspects of a State visit that will be part of Pope Benedict's visit.
Another feature of the visit of Pope John Paul II was that it was much more locally focused as well. Because the visit was longer, the Holy Father visited more places, and so gatherings with him were of people from the local vicinity.
Pope Benedict's visit is centered on four places: Edinburgh, Glasgow, London and Birmingham, and so inevitably a lot of travelling will be involved to be present at celebrations with the Holy Father.
ZENIT: This visit holds particular significance because the Pope is responding to an invitation from the queen. Could you say more about this? Why do you think Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II extended this invitation at this particular time?
Monsignor Summersgill: The queen is a practicing Christian and quite clearly a woman of faith. You only have to listen to her Christmas broadcast to appreciate this.
An invitation to undertake a State visit is unique for the visiting Head of State -- it cannot be repeated.
So I am sure it is with a personal warmth and welcome that Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II issued the invitation. Though of course in these matters the queen acts on the advice of the government.
Both the previous and present government is committed to offering the Holy Father a welcome as the spiritual leader of approximately ten percent of the U.K. population, as well as affirming the different areas of cooperation between the U.K. government and the Holy See, especially in tackling poverty in the world and in the shared commitment to education.
ZENIT: The upcoming Papal visit has put the Catholic Church in the spotlight in a more particular way in the United Kingdom. Could you say more about the impact of this publicity? How do you think the Church can use this publicity to reach out to non-Catholics?
Monsignor Summersgill: I hope that the preparations for the visit and the visit itself will be a time when Catholics will rediscover confidence in ourselves and in our place within British society.
For many reasons that I don't need to rehearse here, it has not been an easy time in recent years being a Catholic in our countries and I see the Holy Father's visit as a moment of affirmation.
It is also a time to recognize the great changes the Church in the United Kingdom has undergone: We are a much more diverse Church, largely through immigration, than we ever were.
It is too a moment for the Gospel message to be proclaimed in the public forum.
We are ready to respond to an increase in interest in the Church and have already sent materials to parishes to help both prepare for the visit and for the period immediately afterwards.
It is a happy coincidence that the Sunday of Pope Benedict's visit is traditionally for us Home Mission Sunday, so it all fits together very well.
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On the Net:
Papal visit Web site: www.thepapalvisit.org.uk